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Phila. plans design-review board

The broad outlines of a new design-review process for big developments in Philadelphia were discussed publicly for the first time at a City Planning Commission meeting yesterday.

The broad outlines of a new design-review process for big developments in Philadelphia were discussed publicly for the first time at a City Planning Commission meeting yesterday.

The proposal calls for a new seven-member board, composed principally of design professionals such as architects and planners, that would take into account aesthetics and other arguably subjective criteria as part of the formal municipal review of major new developments.

After weighing community input and the views of the developer, and after considering how well the project in question meshes with the "public realm," the new board would make an advisory recommendation to the Planning Commission. The commission would not be bound to follow the committee's recommendation.

"The purpose of it is to understand the relationship of projects to the public realm and to articulate a level of design excellence about what is good for the city as a whole, which we think has been conspicuously missing from a lot of these discussions to date," said new Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger, who drafted the plan (which was not made available to the public at the meeting).

Greenberger said design review would be used only for major projects, such as those that exceed 100,000 square feet or those requiring extensive zoning variances. Projects that can be built as a matter of right, without zoning variances or other special city approvals, would not be required to participate.

At yesterday's meeting, Greenberger said he would seek feedback on his proposal in January and February, including public hearings. Greenberger, who hopes to have the board up and running by the spring, said the new board needs only the approval of senior Nutter administration officials and the Planning Commission to be created. No City Council vote is required.

If the board does its job well, it could dramatically change the way big projects get built in Philadelphia. Over the last few decades, major developments have gone through a sort of ad hoc design-review process, where plans are tweaked at civic association meetings, in City Council offices, in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Mayor Nutter wants to consolidate that process, and put it in the Planning Commission's hands. Creating a formal design-review board - and asking developers and community members to hash out their differences before the board - would certainly increase the Planning Commission's clout.

"The proposal is to organize design review under the auspices of the Planning Commission . . . " Greenberger said. "Essentially to replace all these unorganized reviews that are happening elsewhere, and to do it in a public forum so that the public and the development community have an opportunity to say what they want to about specific projects, and that would be filtered through a group of professionals from the community who can read the language of design."

The plan is likely to raise the hackles of at least some Philadelphians, Greenberger acknowledged. He predicted that some developers would view it as nothing more than an additional layer of bureaucracy, and that some community groups may resent their loss of influence over big developments.

Planning Commission member Joe Syrnick asked for assurance that the board would not get mired down in overly minor aesthetic details, such as whether a given building ought to be orange or purple.

"That's where it gets scary, because it becomes very, very subjective," Syrnick said.

Greenberger acknowledged that it was a concern, and that putting the right people on the board was the best hedge against such problems.

"Design review can go bad," Greenberger said. "It's very much a function of the clarity of the people who sit on these things, to focus on the right issues."

In other business, the Planning Commission approved zoning changes for the Boyd Theater / Monaco Hotel proposal at 1910 Chestnut, and for the former State Office Building at the corner of Spring Garden and Broad Streets, which developer Bart Blatstein hopes to convert into an apartment complex with two glass-enclosed floors of retail.

The commission also heard information-only presentations on Blatstein's plans for an extended-stay hotel at 828 N. Second Street, and on the Center City District's redesign plan for Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall.